Article By: Dan Clark
As James Wan’s latest directorial effort The Conjuring points out the three stages of demonic possession are infestation, oppression, and finally actual possession. How that progression is handled is what separates the horror movie greats from the horror movie wannabes. The Conjuring comes far closer to a horror great than another mundane entry to the horror genre. James Wan is no novice when it comes to this subject matter. His previous films Saw and Insidious touched upon common horror tropes but spun them in an unique way.
The Conjuring follows a more traditional path in an abundance of ways. From the camera movements to the setting to the lack of computer graphics—everything has the feel of old-fashioned horror. Thankfully this familiarity doesn’t take away from the film’s quality. In fact this classic return to form is a rather refreshing take as it aids in developing a truly freighting atmosphere full tormenting anticipation. Beyond being an assortment of jumps and jolts The Conjuring is a prime example how to elicit legitimate fear from the audience. You can marvel at the technical achievement alone as long as you can see enough of the screen through your hand that is firmly covering your eyes.
As mention previously the story follows the common haunted house plotline. A family moves into rundown old farmhouse full of creaky doors, hidden compartments, and Gothic antique furniture. This farmhouse has tremendous amounts of character. At times it looks like a very quaint home that would be a joy to settle down in, but in the right light–or lack thereof–it has a chilling presence. Something as simple as a darkened tree appears as if it is reaching out from the great beyond. Wann brings us into this location in a rather simple and ingenious way. In one continuous shot he transports us throughout much of this home. This provides a much needed perspective as you know where locations are in relationship to one another. When someone gets locked into the basement you understand the time it will take to get to a screaming child inside their bedroom. Camerawork like this is a huge part of organically increasing tension. Foreshadowing is even established through the orientation of the camera. Continuously flipping the camera not only disorients the audience, but also points ahead to events to come.
The Perron family has the misfortune of being the people to populate this haunted home. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play Carolyn and Roger Perron whore are a couple looking for a new start for their five daughters. Very shortly after they arrive strange occurrences start happening. Clocks all stop at 3:07 AM, bruises start appearing on Carolyn’s body, and their pet dog is mysteriously found dead. These occurrences quickly increase in number and intensity. This ‘infestation’ part of the film has some of the best well designed scares. There are some common tropes—little child talking to an imaginary friend that we all know is a ghost—something grabbing at someone while they lay asleep–and someone eerily sleepwalking at the dead of night. Again while they weren’t new ideas they were often effective. Less effective moments came when the apparitions making the bumps in the night were revealed. Some were moderately cheesy and unintentionally funny.
One new component that is brought to the table is the game of hide and clap, which is basically hide and seek with the seeker wearing a blindfold and the people hiding clapping to reveal their location. (I’m sure this was made up for the movie). In a way this is a cheap way to get to freighting payoff, but it also helps answer the question of why the person would go ‘in there’ when the audience is shouting ‘DON’T!’. Ghostly hands eerily clapping is also the standout image of the film. Sound was a key reason those scares work. Scares would slowly build up in a sea of unnerving silence. When the silence would finally break it would be equally relieving and frightening. Once this activity turned violent the Persons realize they are in desperate need of help.
Having an abundance of characters did give Wan a lot of strings to pull. Sometimes there were too many strings for him the handle. In fact the Perron family members are arguably not even the main characters. Some may few Vera Farminga and Patrick Wilson as the main protagonists. They play Lorraine and Ed Warren a pair of Paranormal investigators who have become famous with their work fighting demonic oppression. Lorraine Warren may be a familiar name to some as she also worked on the real life Amityville Horror case. The Conjuring is also set to be based on another true life case she worked on. Carolyn Perron seeks her them out in hopes they can stop the tormenting forces infecting her home. They both agree to start an investigation. Unbeknownst to them it will be one of the toughest cases they will ever work on.
With this abundance of natural and supernatural characters it does become difficult to keep everything straight. Enough time is spent to allow you to care about these characters. This is a loving family you cannot help but sympathize with, but the narrative does get murky with all these moving parts. It is hard to distinguish between all the daughters as only a few stood out. The narrative could never find common ground between the Persons and the Warrens stories. Lorraine was dealing with her own issues after a recent exorcism went wrong. That demonic baggage becomes a further issue as they investigate this new case. Most of the second and third act is devoted to her story, causing the Perron family to get lost in the shuffle. When the Perron’s issues finally come to ahead it is almost an afterthought. While the final exorcism is effective, it is not as chilling as what came before.
When you go to a comedy you want to know if it is funny. When you go to a horror film you want to know if it is scary, and speaking as a self-proclaimed scaredy cat I found it quite frightening. A huge aspect of what made it work was setting it in the 1970’s. Horror films feel more palpable when they are placed in the past like this. No cell phones, no internet, no found footage angle. Cable is infested with Paranormal Investigation shows, but seeing that practice with 1970’s technology was a lot more fascinating. It is like giving an action star a stick instead of a machine gun. You are going to have to work a lot harder to yield the same results. James Wan along with some solid performances by Vera Farminga and Lili Taylor did the work to yield those results. The Conjuring is prime real estate for old time horror fans as it is a fine display of technical craftsmanship. It did things the hard way—and that hard way paid off.